One of the (many) elements to the Key government’s success is its strategic acumen, and a big part of that is its willingness to break with political conventions when it is tactically advantageous to do so.
Like, there used to be this political convention that Pharmac was apolitical. It got to make highly contentious decisions about which drugs and treatments got funding and which didn’t on an empirical basis, and the drug companies were left howling at the door. Or, rather, funding covert PR campaigns featuring terminally ill people who, it was claimed, their new and extremely expensive treatments could save, but which yielded nothing because the funding decisions were walled off from political intervention by long-standing convention. It worked brilliantly because both political parties accepted that having a highly effective drug funding regime was more valuable than short term political point-scoring.
But back in 2008 Key decided it would be worth a few votes to break that convention and pledge to fund Herceptin, a drug for which there’d been an ongoing lobbying and PR campaign. Now, today, Labour is in opposition and is playing exactly the same game with another expensive cancer treatment. So Key has said that he regrets making an exception for Herceptin. Which, possibly he should have thought of before he made the deliberate decision to tear up a long-standing political convention.
It’s small potatoes though, because the sheer scale of the conventions broken by Key because doing so was advantageous (at the time) is dizzying. All the handouts and sweetheart deals and the by-election bribes in Northland and using the police and litigation to attack media critics and the near total politicisation of the OIA process and public service in general are all breaches of political convention. And they’re all very strategically astute. And all the commentators and editorialists have tutted over all of them, but there’s been no political price for any of the breaches of convention or tut-tutting by editorialists or commentators because voters don’t pay attention to any of those people any more.
But the thing with political conventions is that they’re either honored or they ain’t. Having opposition parties that are constrained by conventions but a government that breaks them whenever its convenient isn’t a thing. Which is why Labour are cheerfully campaigning for Keytruda funding and why they ‘broke with convention’ and spoke out against the TPPA and so-on. And the same goes for government. Labour have absolutely no incentive to go into government and fix the OIA process and de-politicise the intelligence agencies and police force, and play fair with their media critics and refrain from bribing the electorate with taxpayer money. Why should they?
If National can break all the rules whenever they want and still remain insanely popular then the other parties can too. Which is a shame, I think, but that is the new political reality that Key and his government have created.